Techno-fixes, magic wands and catastrophes: can we have an adult discussion?
by Mario Laguë, Head IUCN Global Communications
So we have undisputable facts regarding the catastrophic consequences of our ways – with increasingly clear deadlines before we reach a point of no return – but the sense of urgency simply isn’t there.
“Now is not the time to burden our faltering economy with additional environmental requirements.” “Combined with carbon capture and storage, clean coal will provide a long-term environmentally benign energy supply.” “You can help the environment by doing nothing more than screw in a few fluorescent light bulbs.” One can read this type of comment in any daily newspaper. And while everybody agrees that the level of awareness about environmental issues is higher now that it ever was before, the facts – stubborn things, facts – show that besides a few exceptions, things are getting worse. As just one example, Dr. Chris Field, of Stanford University, said: “We now have data showing that from 2000 to 2007, greenhouse gas emissions increased far more rapidly than we expected…The consequence of that is we are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we've considered seriously.”
"Perhaps events that end up being considered of historical importance are rarely perceived as such by those living them..."
So we have undisputable facts regarding the catastrophic consequences of our ways – with increasingly clear deadlines before we reach a point of no return – but the sense of urgency simply isn’t there. Perhaps events that end up being considered of historical importance are rarely perceived as such by those living them – especially if through speeches, meetings and negotiations, the “crisis” is perceived as being “managed”. It may also be that we are collectively trying to put reality aside because we don’t want to look at how far-reaching and deep the changes that need to happen really are. Or perhaps everyone is waiting for someone else to take the lead, with the result that not all that much is happening.
Besides, someone will come up with a solution if it is as serious as “they” say, right? And here lies one of the great dangers of all the techno-fixes we are starting to hear about. It is not in their potentially disastrous unintended consequences, as real as these may be (let’s change the chemistry of the oceans, it might work!), but in the false sense that we can go on producing and consuming things the way we in the West have been doing and that technology will save us. After all, it has worked so far.
Without becoming Luddites, is putting all our eggs in the technology basket a smart thing to do? And now things like carbon sequestration are increasingly presented not as a “possibility”, but as a “solution”, like it has already been successfully tested, tried and is economically and environmentally viable. It might end up being an important tool and we should invest in it. But at times it feels like saying that smoking is OK because, with stem cell research, one will soon be able to grow some new lungs.
The other trend in environmental communications is to provide the public with tips on how to be “green”. Not that this is bad. On the contrary: better to drive a hybrid than a Hummer. Turning off your fluorescent light bulbs is better than leaving the incandescent ones on. But eating 31 kilograms of beef, like an average American citizen does every year, is not eco-friendly even if one drives a hybrid to go to the supermarket. That kilo of beef needed 16,000 litres of water before getting to your plate.
So while all the new products and lifestyle tips are great and necessary, they also comfort us in thinking that we can make a few painless changes and that everything will be fine. Meanwhile, new coal-fired power plants keep opening up; more fertilizers and pesticides are used to grow corn which will end up in gas tanks; tropical forests are chopped down to grow palm for oil. But then again, if it is to fuel Bentley’s new 600 horsepower turbocharged W12, it can’t be all that bad, because it runs on ethanol!
In both the techno-fix and the “small gestures” trends, there is this search for a magic wand, the thing that will make this nightmare go away painlessly. But the reality is now harder to ignore since it is not only the realm of the Birkenstock-wearing crowd anymore: scientists, businessmen, Nobel Prize winners and some politicians are now on one side; flat-earthers on the other. The reality is probably that we will need to do a lot of everything if we want to turn things around: small and big changes, painful and painless ones, the way we produce and consume things, the way we share the wealth and the technologies, the way we control our numbers and our appetites, and the way we change our relationship with nature.
The big problem is that we don’t have much time to do all of this. Tipping points are not science-fiction and they’re coming soon.
"As the US election demonstrated, it is possible to raise serious issues without sugar-coating them."
What can be done? Let’s dream for a moment. As the US election demonstrated, it is possible to raise serious issues without sugar-coating them. It is possible to have rational public discussions on highly controversial and emotional issues. Is it realistic to think that the same could happen on an even wider scale regarding environmental issues?
Can we look at the pros and cons of a carbon tax? Can we consider, in this time of massive public spending, investing in natural infrastructure? Can we look at ways to control population growth? At ways to curb our collective addiction to oil? Can we match lofty long-term goals on CO² emissions with short-term measurable and enforceable ones? Can we invest in protecting biodiversity, that web of life formed over millions of years that can do for our planet what a healthy immune system can do for an individual? Can we act to protect existing carbon sinks like tropical forests and peat lands without further delays?
We probably can. But to get there, perhaps we need to start treating our fellow citizens like intelligent beings, able to grasp the facts and act upon them. Not to become doomsayers, but to be able to rise to the challenge.